The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed in April to list the Cook Inlet beluga whale as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), following a November 2006 Status Review and Extinction Assessment that found the population is now at a "26 percent probability of extinction within 100 years."
With numbers once estimated at 1,300 in the 1970s, the genetically distinct and geographically isolated Cook Inlet belugas began suffering greatly in the 1990s, when unsustainable subsistence whaling lowered their count to 653 in 1994 and to less than 350 by 1998. Two years later, the NMFS attempted to curtail the devastating hunts by listing the belugas as "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
However, the belugas have not achieved the 2 to 6 percent population growth rate that was expected. Instead, their population count has "declined 4.1 percent annually since 1999, with a 5.6 percent annual decline since surveys started in 1994," according to a recent NMFS news release. Current estimates list the dwindling whale population at less than 300.
Sadly, threats to these whales far exceed the formerly unregulated hunts. Today, their precarious state is also subjected to predation, ship strikes, anthropogenic noise, ice entrapment, fishery interactions, and habitat loss due to oil and gas development.